The Marinating Mythos: Common Misconceptions & What Marinades Actually Do.

by Kyle Cooper
Posted on

Proper marinades are simple.  Consisting of oil, acid, herbs and spices, they are thought to do two things; imparting flavor and tenderizing tough cuts of meat.  Though not entirely false, soaking meat in an oil and acid bath only does one thing well... Flavor.

This may be surprising to some, but outside of long, slow cooking methods like smoking and braising — which allow the necessary time at the perfect temperatures to break down tough muscle fibers and connective tissues — the tenderization of raw meat is only accomplished mechanically.  Pounding, poking and grinding are the only ways to make raw meat more tender.  Soaking in a marinade simply cannot deliver the same results.

Before we go over why marinades don’t tenderize well, lets take a minute to identify the four basic types of marinades.  

  • Acidic marinades are the most common. Liquids like lemon juice, wines and vinegars — pretty much any liquid below pH 5 — are mixed with oil, herbs and spices.  
  • Alkaline marinades are the opposite, consisting of solutions above pH 9. Most commonly used are baking soda, soda lime and lye and are most useful in brines (we will cover brining in a later post).  
  • Enzymatic marinades involve using naturally occurring enzymes to denature proteins.  These enzymes are found in fruits like papaya, pineapples and kiwi.  If you have used powdered meat tenderizers, you’ve used these derived enzymes.  
  • Fermented marinades don’t refer to the fermentation of the meat itself, but to the fermented products used to soak.  Yogurt is the most globally known fermented marinade base, widely used in middle-eastern cuisines, with buttermilk being the most common stateside.  These fermented marinades use the naturally occurring bacteria to begin to break down the muscle fibers but are not strong enough to do any damage to collagen.

While all these methods can tenderize meat, there is a simple reason why they don't work well.  Think of meat as a sponge.  A tasty, tasty sponge.  This sponge is soaked to capacity with water (75%), amino acids, fatty acids and minerals (25%).  Now submerge this sponge into a solution of oil and acid.  What's going to happen?

The water in the meat-sponge acts as a barrier against the oil/acid solution, causing it to loiter on the surface, not being allowed to penetrate down into the interior.  The acidity will affect the portion it can touch, but that's really it.  The longer it sits, the more it will denature the surface proteins/fibers, but will still only penetrate a few millimeters deep.

The idea that marinades can tenderize meat is not wrong.  If left for long enough, the water will eventually leech out, allowing the tenderizers to reach the interior.  But by the time it does fully penetrate, the surface of the meat will have been denatured to mush.  This mushy meat will lose it's capability to retain any moisture and when cooked, will dry out almost completely.

Even if marinades are ineffective as meat tenderizers, they excel at flavor delivery.  Almost any flavor profile can be achieved if used correctly.  

  • Marinades work best on thinner cuts like steaks, chops and poultry pieces. 
  • If using a larger roast, considered cutting into smaller cubes when used for stews or other braises.  If a whole roast is desired, inject marinade thoroughly with a syringe or consider using a wet rub made from herbs, spices & sugars with just enough oil to form a paste, then cooking over low heat for several hours.
  • Time:  Strong acidic and enzymatic-based marinades are better for shorter soaks — no more than 3 hours — for all of the reasons we have discussed above.  Fermented-based marinades are better for longer soaks.
  • Marinate in the fridge to minimize bacteria growth.
  • Soak in a ziplock bag placed in a bowl.  It minimizes oxygen exposure, is neater and easier to flip in the fridge while protecting against leaky messes.
  • Use soy sauce instead of salt.  Like salt, soy sauce acts as a flavor enhancer but contains glutamic acid which delivers umami flavors that go so very well with meat.
  • Add some sugar, honey or syrup to the marinade.  It will cut the acidity and saltiness while helping to encourage browning during cooking for additional flavor. 
  • Do not use store bought salad dressings as marinades.  They contain artificial sweeteners, stabilizers and gums that will leave your meat with a gelatinous consistency.
  • Wipe the meat clean before you cook.  Excess marinade on the surface can steam the surface of the meat instead of browning.  Then it will burn and you'll be sad.  Don't make yourself sad.
  • Do not reuse marinade as it can develop harmful bacteria over time.  

 

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